Tomorrow is the day we have set aside to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one of the most famous leaders of the black struggle for dignity in the Western hemisphere. Whether King is remembered as the man who fought for equality or the pastor who taught the love of Jesus Christ, one thing is certain: King has been remembered.
This morning, I had the pleasure of visiting one of the greatest hallowed halls of American Christianity: The Washington National Cathedral. While it still feels a little odd that America has an official church, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to experience such a grand space in my nation’s capitol. In anticipation of the holiday, the memory of King was woven throughout nearly every message. My favorite example of this was the old testament reading:
“The man said, ‘They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’ So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, ‘Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams'” (Genesis 37:17b-20).
As I heard the story of Joseph’s betrayal, I was struck by that line “and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” To the brothers, killing Joseph seemed the most conclusive way to end his behavior (and perhaps prevent similar behavior in the future). “He’s different, he doesn’t act like us, and he has received unmerited favor from our father … so we must end his life.” That, they believed, was the only way that they could sustain their fragile identities of tradition and status quo.
On April 4, 1968, a sad man named James Earl Ray believed much the same lie. He believed, I can only imagine, that the life of Dr. King was a constant and perfectly reasonable assault on his racist ideology. Thus, he killed the man that galvanized a movement that awoke a nation. But did he kill the dream?
In the story of Dr. King and of Joseph, I am reminded that people will go to great lengths to secure and maintain their place in society. This process could entail shunning someone or beating someone into submission, but in moments of greatest desperation, it is the life of the body, not the ideas of the person, that must be destroyed. This is most true in the case of Dr. King, who’s black skin alone was a political statement of insurrection to his assassin. I can think of many dramatic examples (“American Beauty,” for one) that convey the fear and rage that is felt toward someone who’s very existence seems to undermine the identity of another.
Still today, there are people who feel compelled to murder. In my city, homicides regularly remind me of this most basic fight for recognition and security. Men and women are killed for many reasons, but believe it is primarily motivated by a basic desire for power. White it is dramatic, murder of another cannot successfully heal the insecurities in the self. These insecurities are only momentarily mitigated by the finality of death.
James Earl Ray’s name is all but forgotten because the murder of MLK did not secure white supremacy as Ray intended. One bullet couldn’t stop millions of people. But he did, perhaps unknowingly, prevent us from forming a complex, humanized memory of the person of King. Today, the story of the man seems to have been set into a field of static nostalgia.
And now James Earl Ray is dead as well and I have to wonder why he even bothered to kill King in the first place. Murder is sad to me because it seems so foolish and all too common. Still, as long as murder exists there will be the temptation to end the life of the other. The body of the enemy, not the ideology of the self, seems like an easier place to affect change.
This is one of those sad realities, but I can’t let murder overshadow life. Instead, we must go on living with the discipline of faith and the hope that one day we will all be made whole. As King himself proclaimed the night before he was killed,
“I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Let it come.P.S. My two most frequently visited MLK speaches: King’s Mountaintop Speech “The Drum Major Instinct“